“It’s easy to go shoot an art movie in a winery in the South of France. But [critics] have no idea how hard it is to create something like Transformers. They review me before they’ve even seen the movie.”
—Director Michael Bay, June 18, 2009
Yes, it’s totally ironic that Bay started complaining about the critics before he’d even read the reviews. But a preemptive strike is very much in keeping with the man’s militaristic worldview, and anyways the bottom line is that Michael Bay just doesn’t care. As he loves to remind everyone, he doesn’t make movies for the critics. “Maybe those guys just don’t like having a good time,” Bay speculated when asked about unfavorable reviews. “That’s a thing, you know. A psychological thing.”
Move over, Freud—I think Michael Bay just nailed it. I, for one, am completely humorless and only enjoy films if they’re (a) black and white, (b) French, or (c) make me feel guiltier about being white. It’s like Michael Bay knows me better than I know myself! But that’s his gift, of course, his simple insights into the human heart.
Eager to get myself into the right mindset for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I turned to the multiplex patron sitting next to me and politely asked him to slam my head against the forward seatback. After a few obliging blows, I felt madder than hell yet completely unable to follow a coherent thought. I knew I had turned into Bay’s ideal spectator when I couldn’t quite tell if the stars flying before my eyes were a part of the Paramount logo or a symptom of low-level brain damage.
Houston, I am go.
What followed was the most insanely irresolvable storyline this side of Inland Empire. The “plot”—a hot mess of male wish fulfillment and esoteric exposition delivered at the speed of a Gatling gun—had something to do with an ancient encounter between the Decepticons and the human race, and a Uranium-like power source called Energen, a long lost thingamajig and sun-destroying Doomsday machine hidden within an Egyptian pyramid. Dispersed like pieces of shrapnel across this already mangled storyline were wink-wink references to Michael Bay blockbusters past. Fiery asteroids pummel the world’s major cities (Armageddon), a covert military unit rebels against the federal government (The Rock), and an unprovoked air attack sinks a U.S. naval carrier (Pearl Harbor). A frenetic but unimaginative mash-up of endlessly resampled movie moments, RotF is kind of like the Grease Megamix of Michael Bay films.
The bottom line is: don’t even bother trying to puzzle through the plot points. There is most definitely not more than meets the eye. Ideally the film’s images should just wash over you. Like a fire hose blasted directly into your face. Because that’s what we’re all here for, right? Balls-to-the-wall Bayhem! The sitcom-level comedy, canned emotional beats, and sporadic stabs at exposition would be completely unbearable outside of our awareness that a go-for-broke action sequence can’t be more than 10 minutes away. And lest we skirt an inconvenient truth, let’s just admit the obvious. The film’s central premise—color-coded automobiles capable of transforming into humanoid robot warriors while moving—isn’t just a high-concept marketing hook. It is also transcendently CINEMATIC. Ever since the Lumière brothers first stuck a camera on the back of a moving train car, film history has been moving inexorably toward this moment.
And on the level of pure retina-searing spectacle, RotF delivers the mother lode. Critics often comment on the outsized dimensions of Bay’s scenarios, where more is a maxim and too much is never enough. But the real secret to Michael Bay’s signature setpieces is the man’s obsessive attention to light. Sure, Bay’s lighting schemes are fraught with characteristic clichés—the cheap poetry of Magic Hour tawniness, the Spielbergian wonder of blinding overexposure—but for most of its running time RotF is an exactingly materialist study of how variable light sources get mirrored in the dizzyingly involved details of the Transformer auto bodies. When the sword-wielding, rocket-powered-rollerblading Ironhide pursues a Decepticon through the neon streets of nighttime Shanghai, the digital modeling looks amazingly realistic. When he then overtakes his adversary, turns on a dime and slices through the oncoming vehicle like a hot knife through butter, it’s enough to make your head blow up like a bulb in a bad socket. Both battle royale and ballet méchanique—and completely void of anything resembling moral complexity or wit—Bay’s precision-cut setpieces are best appreciated as “limit cases” of commercial production where narrative fantasy and abstract formalism converge. In one sequence, hundreds of marble-sized robots assemble into a single structure, and it plays like a sci-fi version of a Busby Berkley dance sequence.
Speaking of classic musicals, here’s Michael Bay on West Side Story: “You don’t necessarily fall in love with the actors or the love story. It's more about the style.” Now, in all fairness to Robert Wise, his 1961 musical feels like the lost original cut of Cassavetes’ Shadows compared to Revenge of the Fallen. But RotF happens to take this very dynamic of stylistic mannerism and dramaturgical disinterest to its reductio ad absurdam. Never before have I so not fallen in love with two such young and good-looking leads. Shia LaBeouf does a bad Seth Rogen impersonation for two and a half hours, then dies (oh, snap!) only to come back to life (sigh). Megan Fox delivers all of her dialogue with the perfunctory stiltedness of a porn star forced to act out a particularly silly Penthouse Forum fantasy. Bay tries to build a story around her as if she were simply part of the mise en scène, and you can’t help but feel that the film might have fared just as well or better had this Foxy lady been fabricated in the same digital studio as the other robots.
And if that sounds crudely misogynist, well, welcome to the world of Michael Bay. I can’t think of another movie marketed to preadolescents that has so casually dropped the word “pussy,” or invited the audience to laugh so mockingly at its few female characters. (“You may be hot, but you’re not so bright” is how one of the robots addresses Fox—to the audible delight of the 8-year-old boy sitting behind me.) True, Ms. Fox is allowed to play with the big boys during the action sequences, and compared to the weeping wallflowers of past Bay films (love interests locked in the gilded cage of the control room) she’s practically an Amazonian feminist icon. But Bay seems largely uninterested in this aspect, Fox’s best angles apparently being down into her breasts and up her skirt. Talentless as she may be, Fox is also Bay’s personal Pygmalion project, and the lack of depth in her characterization ultimately mirrors his own adolescent shallowness.
Over at Slate magazine, Dana Stevens has described Star Trek—the other summer tentpole from the super-dorky Kurtzman-Orci screenwriting duo—as “a blockbuster for the Obama age, when smarts and idealism are cool again.” I guess that makes Revenge of the Fallen the blockbuster for our angry conservative rump. Michael Bay will always defer to the “it’s just entertainment” evasion, but it’s more than obvious that RotF goes out of its way to graft the Transformers’ intergalactic mythology onto a noxiously reactionary, weirdly neoconservative worldview. The dizzying heights of flag-waving jingoism, Axis of Evil fearmongering, and neo-Dolchstoss paranoia are nauseating enough to make you long for the comparatively down-to-earth analysis of The Glenn Beck Program.
At the start of the Revenge of the Fallen, the previously defeated and demoralized Decepticons have regrouped in sleeper cells “around the globe,” but peculiarly seem to gravitate toward China, North Korea, and the Middle East (aka “this godforsaken desert,” as one G.I. Joe-Sixpack describes it). A covert paramilitary unit of exclusively British and American soldiers (natch) aids the Autobots as they secretly hunt down the remaining pockets of terrorist Decepticons. The system is working well enough until the Obama administration, name-checked early on, appoints a beltway bureaucrat to be the “liaison” between Optimus and POTUS. (The soldiers seem to shudder at the sheer French-ness of the word.)
This smugly self-satisfied Washington insider—clearly a card-carrying member of the Blame the Autobots First crowd—reprimands the unit for their past tactical successes, questions the sincerity of Optimus Prime’s motives, and threatens to close down their entire program. (First Guantánamo, now this?!) When the Decepticons launch their first major coordinated attack, not only does Obama cravenly retreat into an undisclosed bunker, he then responds by dispatching a diplomat. Just let me repeat that: Obama wants to negotiate with the Decepticons. Rush Limbaugh in his deepest Oxycontin stupor couldn’t have dreamt that one up.
So the soldiers do what every patriotic American would do: they launch a military coup from the heart of Egypt! The soldiers first storm a small village, guns drawn, because they want to use it as their fort. As the innocent locals flee before them in terror, one of the soldiers shouts, “Remember, they’re friendlies!” Michael Bay’s worldview is just that nuanced. In the ensuing battle to save the earth from death by sun extinction, the soldiers manage to destroy an awful lot of ancient archeological relics. (Bonus points!)
But don’t worry—you can tell the soldiers’ motives are pure because they repeatedly express the desire to die for their country. And isn’t “patriotism” really just a beautiful kind of death wish? Heavily subsidized by the Defense Department—who saved Bay millions of dollars in production costs by coordinating their tactical trainings with his shooting schedule and coverage requirements—Revenge of the Fallen is an epic-length recruitment promo smuggled inside a kids’ meal toy. Rarely has the idea of “sacrifice” been embraced with such self-annihilating ecstasy.
So shoot first and don’t ask questions. Ever. And remember, kids, you gotta get THEM before they get YOU! And if you’re not fortunate enough to die for your country in some godforsaken kasbah, don’t worry—there will always be flashy gas-guzzlers and hot, dumb hos waiting for you stateside.
What a beautiful affirmation of the American dream.